Friday, October 28, 2016

A Thoughtful Hallowe'en Activity?

[Nyerges is the author of several books including “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Extreme Simplicity,” and “Enter the Forest.”  He can be reached at or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]

A small group of us were discussing the upcoming Hallowe’en event, this coming Monday.  Everyone present had already expressed that they would not be a participant in costumes, candies, and parties in a wild night of frenzied festivity.   Was there a better way to commemorate this uniquely ancient festival?

One of our group pointed out that this day had long been a special time to remember the dead. The eating of lots of candy and trying to scare others was a modern invention.  In the olden days, this was probably more of a private home event, rather than a public activity.  According to some records, there were public fires on this feast of Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”), and people went out and visited friends. But the real essence of the day was simply to remember those who have died. 

When our small group discussed this today, we started wondering what it might look like if we were to do that.  We determined that if we wanted to treat the day as a special day to remembrance, we could gather and just sit quietly, and perhaps privately, for 30 minutes or so, and “be with” a chosen loved one who has passed away.

Since none of us was intending to be a part of some party environment, with a lot of junk food and screaming, we discussed what we might actually do on October 31.

First, we generally thought that it would be good to be outdoors, probably in someone’s back yard, and there would be a safe fire in one of those stand-alone fire pits.  Then, we’d bring some appropriate refreshments.  The main part would be that each of us would sit quietly in the yard for awhile, and recall a departed loved one. This could be a parent, a child, a spouse, a close friend.  We could talk out loud or silently to this departed one. No, we wouldn’t expect an answer, but we’d listen for “responses” nevertheless – a bird squacking, a rustling of leaves, unusual lights, a loud distant noise.

Mostly, we saw ourselves remembering the departed one,, and recalling who they were, and what they meant to us, and how they changed our lives. 

Then, after each of us did this with one or two people, we’d all re-gather, share some tea and squash soup, and talk about our experiences around the fire.

It’s only Thursday as I write this  so we will see how this turns out and what sort of experience we’ll all have.   If any of you are inspired to try this more thoughtful approach to this ancient festival, please write to me and let me know how it turned out.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Survival Value of Washing Clothes by hand

Caption: shirt drying in a window in second story apartment in Merida, Mexico.

[Excerpted from Christopher’s book, “Squatter in Los Angeles: Life on the Edge,” available from Kindle, or as a pdf from the Store at]

Washing machines are another of those devices that modern man seems to believe that life could not go on without.  Yet for the vast stretch of human life, there were no washing machines. People just washed with hot water and soap and worked the garments by hand.  Sometimes smooth rocks were used, sometimes not. In fact, sometimes it was just cold running water in the stream and no soap at all. 

When I lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico, I had to walk through a canyon on the west edge of town to get to the school I attended. The poor people lived in little square adobe houses in this section, where the window and doors were merely openings in the structure.  A stream flowed through this canyon and everyday I’d see how all the people who lived there washed their clothes in the stream, usually with rocks. Then they  laid the clothes out on the stones to dry in the sun.  So, clearly, a washing machine is not vital to life.  But it was obviously invented because people wanted and needed more time to do all the other things in life that they deemed far more important than washing clothes by hand, whatever those other things may be.

During the time that I was a squatter in an out-of-the-way place in the hills of Northeast Los Angeles, I learned to wash my clothes by hand, and even began to enjoy that process.  Soon, I never took trips on my motorcycle anymore with a full load of laundry to a laundromat.  I learned how to efficiently wash my clothes by hand, and hang them out on the “solar clothes drier” to get refreshed.   An electric drier seemed to be a luxury that was wholly unnecessary.  On rainy days, I hung my clothes indoors or in a covered area where they’d dry by the wind.

I found that I had a more intimate connection to my clothes after doing this awhile, and somehow this reminded me of some of Thoreau’s commentary, that we should learn to live better with less.  I learned what it takes to clean difficult stains, and the different textures of fabrics. I began to buy for sensibility, always buying for wearability and practicality, rarely because something was in style.  I would often think before I set out in the morning: what if some disaster befalls me today, and I am forced to wear these same clothes for days or longer?  Would my clothes be comfortable?  Could I move around easily in them?  Could I run? Will they be easy to clean?  These and more questions I asked myself, and gradually I eliminated all my clothing that no longer served me.

I frequently took a load of clothes that I no longer wanted to Goodwill and Salvation Army.  Once I began to think to myself, well, if they are no good for me, why should I foist these garments upon the lower income people who must get their clothes at Goodwill?  I realized that was stupid thinking, because there is no predicting the tastes that people have in clothing, whether they are rich or poor.  My part polyester shirts and pants would serve someone well, especially if the alternative was no clothes at all!

After I was no longer a squatter, I  continued to wash some of my clothes by hand. In fact, I have continued this practice life-long, and have rarely used the laundromats around town.  I consider hand-washing a very normal thing to do. Wash some of your own clothes, hang it up to dry, let the sun refresh it.  And it takes no more or extra water to wash those garments than it took for me to bathe. It’s a perfect formula, one small part of what it takes to live ecologically in the city, and to feel that you are not accruing more karmaic debt.

In 2010, I met Yee Fun from Singapore when we shared a room in Merida, Mexico during an educational tour of the Maya lands. Yee Fun was a man who traveled light, carrying only an average size carry-on  travel bag for his week of travel.  He traveled light because he expected to wash some of his clothes, somehow, somewhere.

He would wash in the sink or shower, and then find creative ways to dry his clothes in the window, or balcony when there was one.  We would trade ideas on how and where to dry clothes the most efficiently, and because of this interaction, I earned the title of  “Yee Fun’s Clothes Drying Instructor.” 

These days, I have several of the solar showers, which are heavy-duty plastic bags you fill with water and lay in the sun to get hot.  You then hang it from a tree, and open a spout to let the hot water out. These are awesome and every home should have at least one to enjoy solar-heated water, and just in case, for emergencies.

Practical survival skills are not just for the homeless, or squatters, or destitute low-income people, nor are they only for surviving “the end of the world.”  Survival skills are imminently practical, all the time, everywhere. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Practical Survival Recycling

From “Squatter in Los Angeles,” a book by Christopher Nyerges, available from Kindle.

During the time that I was a squatter, David Ashley organized and conducted the first of a series of recycling seminars that were held on top of the hill in the meeting area at the non-profit, WTI.   Before I met David Ashley, he was described to us as someone involved with urban planning, and who knew how to use the computer.  This was before everyone had a laptop and the personal computer ubiquitousness.  (In fact, this was way before cell phones!).

We’d heard lots of stories about David – he was an all-around skillful guy who was going to be the savior of the non-profit. 

When he finally arrived and moved into the neighborhood, he didn’t exactly become a savior, but he did significantly enhance the operations of the non-profit and made a lot of us laugh more while he shared some of his learning.

One of the events that he organized were the Recycling Seminars, which were somewhat instrumental in further opening my eyes at this crucial time in my life. Lots of people were invited and about 10 people attended the first seminar.  Once everyone gathered, someone brought out a trash bag of things that had been recently discarded.  Everything was dumped on a large tarp so we could see what was there.

Now, first off, there were no vegetable scraps of any sort. All of that sort of stuff went into a composting bin or a worm farm.  So the stuff scattered on the tarp was not full of grease or ants or other moldy old foods. It was actually all very clean.

David would talk, but a lot of this was discussion where he tried to draw out the information from everyone present.

David divided the trash into general categories: glass, cans, paper, cardboard, plastic bags and plastic containers, metal, other.  David shared a phrase that he borrowed from the founder of the non-profit: “Why do we call this refuse?” he asked us with his big grin.  “Because we’ve refused to find a use for these things.”

Then we proceeded to pick through the pile and talk about how it might be used.  This was also before the days when every city had recycling bins on the curb, so if you were determined to recycle items, you had to bag it all up and drive it to a recycling center.  It was economical to do this with large volumes of newspapers and aluminum cans back then, but not much else.

Since the non-profit was located on a large one-acre property, a lot of gardening was done, both with ornamental plants and with food plants.  There were a few little nurseries on the property, and so everyone realized that a lot of discards could be used for potting plants for resale, and for various aspects of gardening and food production.

David would hold up an item – an old ice cream container – and ask everyone what it could be used for.  Of course, the ice cream container would make a good planter. Lots of things made good planters –  empty milk containers (both the plastic type and waxed paper type), coffee cans, soup cans, cans of all sizes, cottage cheese containers, even some old packing boxes (you could just plant the whole thing in the ground and the cardboard would decompose).

There was a wood stove on the property too and there were fires outside in the winter whenever it was cold. So anything paper or cardboard that had no better use could be burned. That was easy.

A lot of the paper was actually junk mail, and so David started a discussion about all the ways to deal with junk mail.  The first solution was to find a way to get off the company’s mailing list, assuming  you didn’t want their mailings in the first place.  It usually does no good to write “Return to Sender” and drop it back in the mail box because the post office just discards such mail, and doesn’t return to the sender unless there was an agreement for the sender to pay for the return mail. So, in some cases, you could open the envelope, and using the envelope they provided, write them a letter telling them to take you off a mailing list. Sometimes you’d have to pay the postage but you might get off a mailing list.

One of the unique ideas from the seminar was to place any “tin cans” or any rustable metal into a container of water to let it rust.  The water would become rusty within a few weeks, and  you’d then pour that water on your plants as a fertilizer – it was called “iron water.”  This was something that I did at my home where I was a squatter, and have done ever since.  It seemed to serve two purposes at least: fertilizing the plants and reusing something rather than discarding it.

Then we went to glass jars with lids. These had all been cleaned after use, but were still the type of jars that are normally discarded in any modern city by the thousands every day.  What can you do with a glass jar, asked David.

Everyone began talking at once, and the ideas ranged from storing leftovers (obvious), to storing grains and rice in your larder, to storing nails and screws.  Timothy shared how he’d taken a dozen similar sized glass jars with lids – at the time, it was the jar that Trader Joe’s sold their salsa in – and how he screwed the lids to the bottom of a shelf in his workshop. Each jar was then used for various sized nails, screws, washers, eyelets, bolts,  nuts, and then that jar could just be screwed onto its lid under the shelf.  Some months later Timothy showed me that shelf in his garage and it really seemed like an ideal and ingenious way to keep a work area neat and organized.

A pair of Michael’s old shoes were picked out of the pile. What could they possibly be used for?  Someone went around to the side of the house where there was a small nursery, and brought back an old shoe that had been filled with soil and used as a creative pot.   A little succulent was growing in it.  Everyone laughed, including me.  After that,  I tried using all my shoes that way for many years, much to the consternation of occasional visitors.  And once in an expensive catalog, I saw what was called a “hobo pot” for $20 or so, which was a planting pot made to look like a stereotypical hobo’s shoe.  Hillarious!  Why would anyone actually buy such a thing when an old shoe would do fine?

This went on like this for a few hours.  With some of the items, it was not easy to identify practical, realistic uses.  After all, there are only so many uses for crafts and art items, and so unless you had some sort of a craft store, there was a limited amount of craft items that the average person would actually make.

There were a few more seminars like this into the 1980s, and they always seemed to waken everyone up to the fact that we throw away too much, and don’t make use of what’s right in front of our noses, all the while screaming “poverty.”  

And during my time of squatting, I put many of these ideas into daily practice, never really quite realizing that a visitor would probably think that a trash collector or hobo lived in my house. Fortunately, I had few visitors during that time.

Want to read this entire chapter, or the entire book?  Get a copy of “Squatter in Los Angeles” from Kindle, or from the Store at

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Roots of Hallowe'en

Is it possible to celebrate a pre-commercialized version?

[Nyerges is the author of several books including “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Extreme Simplicity,” and “Foraging California.”  Information about his books and classes is available at]

Recently, I was part of a  conversation where our small group wondered, How was this Holy Day commemorated before it was all commercialized into a scary night?  Is it possible to observe this Holy Day in a similar fashion today?

We determined that we’d need to dig up whatever historical facts we could find that show how this day was commemorated before 1700, more or less.  Though we couldn’t be 100% certain, we at least assumed that “commercialization” didn’t really exist in 1700, and all the European and some American commemorations before that year probably retained some semblance of what the day was all about, originally.

So, first, let’s begin with the day.

It is believed that the ancient Celts observed something called a “Samhain festival” towards the end of October.  Says the World Book Encyclopedia. “The Celts believed that the dead could walk among the living at this time. During Samhain, the living could visit with the dead. Elements of the customs can be traced to a Druid ceremony in pre-Christian times. The Celts had festivals for two major gods—a sun god and a god of the dead (called Samhain), whose festival was held on November 1, the beginning of the Celtic New Year.

This day, or period, was to mark the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. 
Samhain (pronounced “sow-in,” which means “summer’s end,” or the name of a god, or both) is seen by some Wiccans as a time to celebrate the lives of those who have died, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets and other loved ones who have died. In some rituals the spirits of the dead are invited to attend the festivities.

Various sorts of activities done on Samhain have been described over the centuries. In Ireland,  Samhain was a time to take stock of the herds and food supplies. Cattle were brought  to the winter pastures after six months in the higher summer pastures. Then, the people chose which animals to slaughter before the winter. After the slaughter of the animals, there would be feasting. And obviously, if you aren’t an animal-raising farmer, how would you celebrate this aspect, except for the feasting?

The Catholic Church was aware of all the so-called “pagan” observances, and had their own day to commemorate the dead, May 13. This began in  609 or 610 C.E., when Pope Boniface the 4th dedicated the Pantheon— the Roman temple of all the gods—to Mary and all the martyrs.  Later that date was changed by Pope Gregory III (731-741 C.E.), who dedicated a chapel in Rome to all the saints and ordered that they be honored on November 1.  This was done, in part, to overshadow the pre-existing Samhain commemorations.

In the 11th century,   November 2nd was assigned as "All Souls’ Day" in commemoration of the dead.   So this began the use of the term Hallow’s Eve, or Hallowe’en for October 31.

Hallowe’en customs are similar to the observance of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, commonly practiced in Mexico and which can be traced to early Aztec times.  Apparently,  this “day of the dead” was originally commemorated in Mexico in May, and was changed to November 2 sometime after Spanish contact to correspond with the Christian tradition.


Trick or treating in modern times goes back to leaving food and wine for roaming dead spirits and ghosts. The custom was referred to as "going a-souling" and was eventually practiced only by the children who would visit the houses in their neighborhoods and be given gifts of ale, food and money. It was believed the spirits of the dead returned to visit their old homes during this time, so in ancient times, people left food out for them and arranged chairs so that the dead would be able to rest.    

Treats called “soul cakes” were given out in memory of the departed.  The Middle Age practice of souling — going door to door begging for food in return for prayers — became popular and is even referenced by William Shakespeare in 1593.  This is obviously the root of the modern “trick or treating” for mini Snickers bars, a practice no doubt loved by every dentist.

Seasonal foods such as apples and nuts were often used in the Samhain rituals. Apples were peeled, the peel tossed over the shoulder, and its shape examined to see if it formed the first letter of the future spouse's name.  Nuts were roasted on the hearth and then interpreted – if the nuts stayed together, so would the couple. Egg whites were dropped in water, and the shapes foretold the number of future children. Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from the number of birds or the direction they flew.  


Celts would wear masks when they left their homes during the night hours during Samhain days, because they hoped they would avoid being recognized by the ghosts and be mistaken merely for fellow ghosts.
“Mumming” and “Guising” were a part of Samhain from at least the 16th century and was recorded in parts of Ireland, Scotland, Mann and Wales. It involved people going from house to house in costume (or in disguise), usually reciting songs or verses in exchange for food.  It is suggested that it evolved from a tradition whereby people impersonated the aos sí, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf.  Impersonating these spirits or souls was also believed to protect oneself from them.   One researcher suggests that the ancient festival included people in masks or costumes representing these spirits, and that the modern custom came from this.


Pagan Celtic priestesses and their followers would roam the countryside, chanting songs in order to frighten away the evil spirits thought to be out on Halloween night.  I wonder how that could be practiced in your neighborhood?


Bonfires  were a big part of the festival in many areas of western Europe.  Bonfires were typically lit on 
hilltops at Samhain where everyone could see them, and there were rituals involving them.

Bonfires comes from the root, “bone-fires” because the priests sacrificed animals and supposedly even people in an attempt to appease the sun god, while also looking for future omens. The fire was said to be a type of sympathetic magic, where the fire mimicked the sun, which has the power to hold back the darkness of winter.  Burning the fires was also believed to be a way of banishing evil, at least symbolically.


Divination has likely been a part of the festival since ancient times, and it has survived in some rural areas.  In part, this meant that the spirits,  the aos sí., could enter your world.  Many of the food offerings and fires were directed to the aos sí.   Or perhaps, some of the  crops might also be left in the ground for them the aos sí.    The aos sí.were addressed in various ways, with food offerings, with walks into the ocean, with the idea to hold off any mischief, and perhaps to learn the future.

The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one night of the year seems to have ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world.


So what do you conclude from all this?  Is there an ideal way to commemorate this ancient day, and still avoid the trappings of commercialization?  Is it even possible?

I like the way that the Day of the Dead is commemorated. There are altars with pictures of the dearly departed, and plates of good food.  Candles are lit, rather than a big bonfire which the local fire department would frown upon.  Families gather, and talk in respectful tones about their departed relatives.  Yes, of course, even the Day of the Dead has turned into wild partying in some quarters, but if you seek a return to roots of the ancient commemoration of the dead, perhaps begin here.  Begin with family or neighborhood gatherings. Prepare a good meal, and keep in the mind the foods that your beloved departeds enjoyed. This is not necessarily because you think their spirits will come to eat (last I checked, ghosts don’t need to eat), but because having, for example, your mother’s favorite dish will give you another reason to talk about your mother, and to remember all the good things she did. 

This is at least a start, and it elevates our day of ghoulish and pointless fear-mongering into one that reconnects us with our roots.